João’s love affair with the water began from a young age. Born in Connecticut, he often returned to his parents’ homeland of Portugal to visit his grandmother in her coastal summer residence. Long days were spent playing on the beach and in the water on the bodyboard she bought him. Aged 12, after he and his family returned to Portugal for good, a US surf team was passing through Praia Grande on a cultural exchange and, well, the rest is history. “It just happened that one of the head coaches was pretty instrumental. There’s a bit of a technical transition when you go from bodyboarding to surfing. It’s really difficult to catch the waves and get the timing right, so it takes a lot of practice to break through.”
But he did break through and started competing on the junior national circuit and getting sponsorship deals. The start of his surfing career hit an early bump when he began studying at university, “It was brutal. I lost all my sponsors when I got in and I wasn’t getting very good grades either, I was a bit lost.” However, the experience wasn’t in vain. João was able to move to Australia for a stint during his studies. The industrial town of Newcastle has a deep surf culture, which proved to be the perfect platform for him to kick start his career again.
Fast forward a few years and João is the first European to qualify to paddle in the WSL Big Wave Tour, in which he finished in the top 5. He has since gone on to become one of the world’s most successful big wave riders and is well known for surfing Portugal’s infamous Nazare. “It’s an amazing coincidence, so to speak, that Portugal has this absolutely world class wave which the whole world has seen, and to be able to apply my skills and be able to be part of that was was a really great transition.” Nazare wave, which often reaches around 80ft high, is considered one of the largest and trickiest waves to surf on the planet, only the best of the best can attempt this and even many of those aren’t successful. “It’s very interesting how it captures people’s imagination about the power of and the respect that you need for nature, it’s different from fear but definitely connected.”
As for how you prepare to surf an 80 ft wave, João seems fairly relaxed about it all. “Nazare is one of those iconic ultimate testing grounds. There’s this violence that is very real but is also the beauty behind the wave – it’s a really hostile environment and so preparation and experience count a lot. Your connection to the ocean from an early age gives you this ability to relax underwater. Cabo da Roca, a cape in Portugal at Europe’s most western tip (just 40 minutes from Lisbon’s centre) is exposed to the North Atlantic swells, so it’s a very powerful beach break. So from a young age, I was very blessed to learn a lot of these underwater techniques that other surfers, who grew up with softer waves, didn’t have. How you’re able to hold your breath is also a really essential part of the cross training.”
And on the mental side..? “The breathing exercises are a kind of meditation. You go through a lot of internal anxiety on the one hand and a lot of internal conversations and analysis, just understanding why you do what you do, why you take the risks. You ask yourself, why do you enjoy it? Why is it important to you? That’s all really part of the process to then be comfortable in competing and to frame things better for me. But what I really learned is that if you try too hard, you’re not really having fun. It might sound a bit cliché, but at a very high level of performance, after all the preparation and the suffering to get there, you really have to be enjoying it, if you’re not, you’re not going to perform at your best.”
When João isn’t out surfing the giant waves himself, he’s teaching others how to. His Surf Academy in Carcavelos just outside of Lisbon’s city centre is very popular with both locals and tourists. What made him choose to make Lisbon his home? “It’s a very old city, so there are a lot of layers of culture and an aesthetic beauty. The architecture in the city is really amazing, but at the same time, it’s very close to the natural world, very close to the ocean. There’s diversity in such a small space, even for surfing – Nazare is just under an hour away on the freeway – so it was an obvious choice for me. San Francisco is similar in that way as it has both the ocean and the woods nearby, but without the same layers of culture and history.”
“And then there’s the international side. It’s exciting to see not just how proud the locals are, but how a lot of people from around Europe have also moved here and found different ways of contributing to the landscape.”
And his insider tips on where to surf around Lisbon? Ericeira surfing reserve, Peniche (where the world contest took place) and Cascais with its smooth waves are all the best spots within close proximity to Lisbon. Across the bridge, Costa da Caparica is perfect for learners with its slightly softer waves.
João still enters surf comps from time to time but he’s also trying his hand at setting up a competition in one of his most beloved surfing destinations – the Azores. The remote collection of islands in the middle of the Atlantic was still largely unknown just a few short years ago. Now with more direct flights from European cities, it’s becoming an attraction for nature lovers and surfers are a big part of that. “The natural environment is very raw and very powerful and you really feel that you’re in the middle of the ocean and feel that strength of an island with the volcanic activity and all that.” The competition would take place at one of his favourite surf spots there, Viola beach on San Miguel island next January 2022, although there’s still a lot to do before it’s confirmed. The exposed reef off this quiet beach means there are consistent and surfable waves year round, although the best time to go is in the winter.
The competition isn’t just about bringing surfers to the area, it’s about promoting conservation and actually protecting the land, sea and habitats here. An environmental activist, João is involved with organisations, notably as the co-founder and project manager of the World Surfing Reserves. He’s excited to make the Azores a flagship destination to illustrate the importance of maintaining and protecting the landscapes and habitats in surfing spots around the world, as well as supporting the local communities.
This environmental side and joie de vivre is something that João brings to all aspects of his work, including in his surf school. “The main lessons that we discuss with the coaches on the team is just really respecting the ocean and enjoying nature” – a lesson that applies to us all.